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Pediatrics at HSS

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Strength Training for Teenagers

teenager lifting weights at the gym

The other day, 16 year-old Tyler asked his mom if she would buy him a set of dumbbells. He wanted to start working out, especially his arms and upper body. Tyler’s mother was happy he was interested in becoming fit, but she didn’t know much about lifting weights. She wanted to ensure he would be exercising correctly and wouldn’t get hurt.

Supervision by a trained professional is key to successful strength training, says Joseph Molony, a physical therapist and coordinator of the Young Athlete Program at Hospital for Special Surgery. “Done safely with the proper technique, strength training is good for teenagers and even for pre-adolescents,” says Molony, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “There’s a belief that young people should not engage in strength training, but that’s a myth.”

Before Beginning a Strength Training Program

It’s a good idea for teens and their parents to consider what they hope to gain from strength training, according to Dr. Daniel Green, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the Lerner Children’s Pavilion at HSS. Dr. Green also recommends a doctor’s visit before starting the program if a teenager has experienced pain or a previous injury so that the appropriate treatment plan and training strategy can be developed.

The next step is to find a structured, well-supervised program or a certified instructor to get started. A fitness evaluation, development of a safe program geared to an individual’s needs, and learning proper technique are essential, according to Molony.

Teens may be able to find a program in their community, or they may opt for one-on-one instruction. The HSS Young Athlete Program offers training and conditioning for small groups, as well as individual sessions.

“A general strengthening program should offer age-appropriate exercises; teach proper movement patterns; address major muscle groups, including the core; and have the teen progress in a slow and steady manner,” says Ashley Fluger, an exercise physiologist at the HSS Young Athlete Program. “A well-rounded fitness program also incorporates cardiovascular exercises that are good for the heart, such as biking or running, as well as exercises to increase flexibility, such as foam rolling.”

Tips for Teens

To find a fitness professional, do your homework and check credentials. An expert should have formal training and some type of certification. For example, Molony and Fluger are certified strength and conditioning specialists. Here are their strength-training recommendations:

  • A proper 5 to 10-minute warm-up and cool-down period should be part of the program. Although it was once thought that static stretching − holding a stretch for about 30 seconds − should be done before exercising, experts now believe it’s best to do static stretches after completing the weight lifting.
  • The “dynamic” warm up is a great way to begin. It entails movements that help increase heart rate, warm up muscles and incorporate flexibility. It should be done for at least 5 to 10 minutes before lifting weights. Exercises such as jumping jacks, lunges, and raising the knee to the chest are examples. An elliptical machine is also a good piece of equipment for warming up the arms and legs.
  • Using a foam roller before exercising is another good way to warm up. Utilizing the device increases blood flow to your muscles and improves flexibility.
  • Teens should start slowly with lighter weights, gradually progressing to heavier loads. They must be able to maintain good form and control during all repetitions.
  • Young people should be able to complete three sets of 10-15 repetitions. This ensures they are using a weight they can handle. If they can only do three or five reps, that means the weight is too heavy, leaving them more vulnerable to injury.
  • Strength training should be limited to 2 to 3 times per week on nonconsecutive days to avoid overloading and overstressing the body.
  • Teens should never attempt the so-called “one rep max” – the maximum amount of weight they could handle in one bench press or barbell lift.  Kids see professionals doing this kind of power lifting and may want to replicate it, but it’s a major cause of injury. Young people can sustain muscle strains, tendon tears, back injuries and even hernias.
  • Participants should be encouraged to keep a log to track their progress and stay motivated.
  • Young people need to stay hydrated during the workout, which means carrying water or an energy drink with them and drinking when they are thirsty.
  • Teens should know that they need to stop if they experience pain or feel something pop, and they should report any possible injury to their parents. It’s important to know the difference between muscle soreness, which is acceptable, versus joint pain or a severe muscle ache, which could indicate an injury.
  • Any sign of illness or injury should be evaluated fully before allowing the teen to resume an exercise program.

Finally, teens should stay away from supplements purported to enhance performance.  A better overall strategy to ensure success includes a nutritious diet containing lots of protein, fruits and vegetables; sufficient hydration; dedication to the exercise program; maintaining good form while exercising; adequate rest; and slow and steady progress.